Teens Who Smoke Also Struggle With Body Image-Related Guilt And Shame, New Study Shows

Smoking teens
A new study shows that teens who smoke suffer from body-related guilt and shame. Laura Smith CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Smoking is bad for you. Everyone knows that, even the people who smoke. Thankfully, kids today are realizing that, as about 25 percent of them smoke when compared to 40 percent in 1987. When thinking about the reasons they start, some that come to mind might be they think it makes them look cool, or because their parents or friends do it — why can’t they, too?  Few people’s first thought would be that they smoke because of a negative self-image, but new research shows this might be the exact reason they start.

At the beginning of their investigation, researchers sought to answer these questions: Do teens who start smoking have a negative body image? Does a teenage smoker use physical activities to balance out the smoking? And why would a teen smoke but still participate in these recommended levels of physical activity?

To answer these questions, they compared results from a survey on physical activity in 1,017 teens — both smokers and non-smokers, most of whom were aged 16 and 17 — to current Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines and Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.

They found that active non-smokers were less likely to report body-related guilt or shame, while active smokers were more likely to report higher levels of body-related guilt. The unhealthiest group, however, was the non-active smokers, who reported high levels of body-related shame and guilt.

"Guilt and shame are two distinct entities," said Erin O'Loughlin, a researcher with Concordia University's Independent Program (INDI) department, in a press release. "Shame is tied to self-perception and self-esteem, and reflects a negative evaluation of the self. Guilt has more to do with your actions and reflects a negative evaluation of a specific behavior."

Active smoking subjects — a higher percentage of whom were male — were often looking to bulk up or gain weight, but this goal was misguided. "The irony is that the smoking might actually hinder muscle gain," O'Loughlin said. "Evidence has shown that smoking leads to more visceral fat in the stomach area."

Female smokers, on the other hand, were more likely to use cigarettes as an appetite suppressant in order to manage their weight. But what they failed to realize was that exercise (as well as playing Tetris) could help curb cigarette and food cravings, all the while helping them to achieve a healthy weight.

Though smoking rates among young people have dropped recently, they are now beginning to plateau. According to O’Loughlin, increasing physical activity may result in even fewer young smokers, and she believes that public health practitioners should encourage all young people to exercise more often.

"Both the active smokers and active non-smokers in the study did about the same amount of physical activity — so teenagers shouldn't be discouraged from exercise just because they happen to smoke," she said. "If they discover that it helps them reduce cigarette cravings, they are on the right track."

Source: Gisèle A. Contrerasa, Catherine M. Sabistonc, Erin K. O'Loughlinb, et al. Body image emotions, perceptions, and cognitions distinguish physically active and inactive smokers. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2015.

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